Four Types of Leaders in Taoism

In the Liu Ming translation of the Tao te Ching we come to chapter 17. Here we find the following lines: “Great Adepts are a shadowy presence. Mediocre adepts are loved and honored. Lesser Adepts are awesome and feared. Hypocrites are reviled and defied.”

In pre-dynastic ancient China, before there was a China really, Adepts were shaman-warrior-kings who became what they were through their own spiritual development. This epoch of Chinese history is sometimes called the time of the Three Great Rulers and Five Emporers.

From within this tradition a model of leadership arose that allowed people to interpret what kind of ruler was running their area. I’ll offer this model here to create a context to understand that we live in a world of poor leadership across the planet and that this has been ongoing for as long as we know. Yes, there are some notable exceptions but these are rare.

It goes something like this. The Great Adept would be an enlightened (in the mystical-spiritual sense) being whose identity might or might not be known. They live a shadowy existence in that they do not make much fuss about themselves. They avoid publicity, avoid talking incessantly or argue why you should do this or that. What characterizes them is humility and modesty and a preference for the simple. Their influence is untraceable yet their effect is felt throughout the land in the form of mutual harmony, cooperation and peace.

Mediocre Adepts view the world as a troubled place and they arrive as a wise, gentle parent whose mission is to guide their children. They may have great power to help the poor, feed the needy and do something about social injustice. Maybe they start organizations to help others. Provide services for those who can’t afford very much. They have much charisma and generate a large following of devotees. Perhaps Mother Theresa was such a person. Or Jesus.

Now it gets juicy. The Lesser Adept sees the world as a cauldron of unchecked desire, behaviors, and impulses that cause war and conflict and competition for resources. They are feared and awed because they have risen to power and they wield powerful tools of law and administration to create and uphold order. (Notice the difference between the Great and Lesser Adept. In the former, peace and harmony naturally exist due to the his/her simply being present. The later has to exert much effort to keep things from falling apart)

This is the kind of ruler we are used to in our history. Every country has some form of law and order and a bureaucratic system to sustain its functioning. On top of that sits this kind of ruler. Some of them are pretty good at it. Others are mixed. And some are regrettable.

Now come the Trumps, the Saddam Husseins, the Putins, the Hitlers, the Stalins, Pol Pot, fundamentalists like the Taliban or ISIS. What they did and do is different of course but the how is the same. They rise to power through manipulation and force. They scapegoat individuals and/or groups of individuals and use propaganda to create the delusion that unless you support them, “they” (whoever their favorite punching bag is) will get the upper hand and then all will go to hell in a handbasket. The tools of their trade are fear, paranoia, suspicion, anger, mistrust.

Hypocrisy is more or less in their dna. They will say don’t do as I do, do as I say. (I’m reading that while Trump enjoyed media leaks that worked against Clinton, he’s outraged when they work against him.) Newt Gingrich, back in the day of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, famously quipped to his second wife whom he dumped to be with his mistress that people should listen to what he says, not what he does. Remember when Richard Nixon said during the David Frost interview that when a president does something it’s not illegal? Hypocrisy is an insidious psychological trait whereby a person will think they are above the rules and laws they expect others to live by.

They are polarizing figures. Some will love them. Others will hate them. They generate a lot of publicity and govern through fear of retaliation, imprisonment, torture and worse. The good news is they don’t last very long. The bad news is they leave behind a lot of misery for others to clean up.

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